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Review Essay

Kadija Sesay, ed., Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British Literature

Bruce King
p. 108-109
Bibliographical reference

Kadija Sesay, ed. Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British Literature. Foreword by Lola Young. Hansib Publications [POB 226, Hertford SG14 3WY, UK]. 2005. 280 pages. ISBN 1-870518-06-3. £14.99

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1Who, what, why, and when is Black British Literature? Prabhu Guptara’s ground breaking Black British Literature: An Annotated Bibliography (1986) included black, Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Chinese, just about every non-European, non-white, author who lived or had lived in England including writers of popular fiction. Soon, however, the 1980s political alliance between black and ‘Asian’ (a term that few Indians or Pakistanis would normally use) fragmented as can be seen from the title of C. L. Innes’s survey of A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain 1700-2000 (2000), a division also found in Sukhdev Sandhu’s London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (2003). Each of the three books showed that England had a history of non-whites, who contributed to its culture long before the wave of immigration that followed the Second World War. In attempting to map a previously neglected past they were saying that it is a myth to claim Great Britain has always been white until recently-black people have historically been part of England.

2Although Mark Stein’s Black British Literature: Novels of Transformation (2004) discusses authors from Asian, Caribbean and African backgrounds, his book marks a shift from tracing a continuity from the earlier immigrant writers to what he terms a ‘new beginning’. While discussing Sam Selvon as a someone who began the change, Stein focuses on recent generations of writers born in or mostly raised in England — Hanif Kureishi, Caryl Phillips, and David Dabydeen, as well as Meera Syal, Diran Adebayo, Andrea Levy, and Bernardine Evaristo. His is still a Black English literature inclusive of those of Asian and part-Asian origins, as well as those born in the Caribbean. There has been, however, a change in the air as tensions between the ethnic communities increase, as Asians have asserted their separateness, and as separatist African-American identity politics have become influential. Witness Write Black, Write British (2005). Goodbye multiculturalism, hello AfricanBritish.

3The nineteen essays in Kadija Sesay’s volume are solely concerned with recent writers, viewing all previous ones as immigrant colonials. The essays mostly insist that in order to be Black British, one needs not only to be born in the UK (no Dabydeen, no Mike or Caryl Phillips need apply) but must be of direct or indirect African descent (no Asians such as Syal or Kureishi either). This attempted new canon of Black British mostly consists of Diran Adebayo, Jackie Kay, Andrea Levy, Courttia Newland, Leone Ross, Zadie Smith, Patience Agbabi, Bernardine Evaristo, Dorothea Smartt, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Lucinda Roy. Others mentioned are Alex Wheatle, Stephen Thompson, Vanessa Waters and, oddly, Biyi Bandele-Thomas (who was born, and raised in, and has mostly written about Nigeria). One of the most useful essays in this uneven collection is Sandra Courtman’s ‘West Indian Worker Writers in the 1970s Britain’, a history of the start of the Hackney Centerprise writers workshop and its associates, which formed the ‘Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers’. While most of the writing Courtman discusses is of sociological interest, many authors of the new black cannon were involved with Centerprise as instructors or administrators, or are friends with those who were. Other steps on the way were the publication of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing (2000) edited by Sesay and Newland, Sesay’s literary magazine SABLE (2001) followed by the London ‘Write Black, Write British’ conference (2001). Except for Kay, these are London-based writers. Non-Londoners, such as Joanna Traynor, are ignored. While the big names, such as Kay, Smith, Evaristo, Levy, and Adebayo gained recognition on their own, someone like Smartt is mostly known from her workshops and readings.

4A new group of interesting black British authors who write about the black experience in England began to be published during the 1990s; but whether they are black in some ethnic or racial sense is questionable. The recurring claim here is that, while the writers have moved beyond black essentialism and immigrant themes, they are creating something new which is black British, yet can not be defined as British since British is white. This is the same old problem that has haunted black studies and recent black American culture with their tendency towards self-segregation. The more welcoming the mainstream society becomes, the more former victims close ranks against assimilation. As Kay, Smith, Evaristo, Levy, and Adebayo attempt to define or show what being black or part-black (which four of the five are) means in England today, critics who insist on blackness are failing the basic task of being descriptive, a difficulty shown by the contrasting views of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth by Molly Thompson and Tracey Walters. The former sees it as a criticism of white England, the latter focuses on the existence and difficulties of the new multiculturalism. Thompson’s interview with Patience Agbabi is an example of a questioner trying to lead an author in the opposite direction from which she wants to go. While warning against essentialism, several critics imply that returning to African roots is essential.

5Many of the essayists are doctoral candidates and young lecturers; while having the excitement of a new phase of English studies, they are weighed down by the critical language and assumptions of the past. Eric Doumeric writes of Zephaniah without awareness of the reservations made in Kwame Dawes’ essay on Black British Poetry. Mahlete-Tsige Getachew and Koye Oyedeji more interestingly question notions of Black Literature and Black Political Identity.

  • 1 Bruce King’s Internationalization of English Literature 1948-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2004) i (...)

6Two notes. Several mixed race British novelists on visits to Nigeria have politely translated the Yoruba insult ‘oyingbo’ as ‘white’, as have essayists here. ‘Pig skinned’ would better catch the tone. A few essayists seem to assume that anyone not waving a Black nationalist flag is a subtle racist. In my ‘Introduction’ to The Internationalization of English Literature1 I objected to those who argue that in a post-nationalist era national histories have become irrelevant. I say that such a position undermines decades of minorities working for a multiracial England: ‘It is morally wrong to say that the idea of English literature, culture, and history no longer matters at precisely the time when it needs redefinition to include Others.’ Victoria Arana claims that this insinuates that efforts by the black British population to ‘make England a bit more theirs is “morally wrong”’, which is precisely the opposite of what I clearly wrote.

7Although a useful if cacophonous book to read for what is being said about the new Black British writers, it is part of a literary moment. Social and cultural changes have remade English literature during the past two decades while revealing the continuing tension between assimilation and self-segregation that is common to minorities as they continually redefine themselves in their relationship to others.

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1 Bruce King’s Internationalization of English Literature 1948-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2004) is being republished in a Chinese edition.

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Bibliographical reference

Bruce King, Kadija Sesay, ed., Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British LiteratureCommonwealth Essays and Studies, 28.2 | 2006, 108-109.

Electronic reference

Bruce King, Kadija Sesay, ed., Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British LiteratureCommonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 28.2 | 2006, Online since 15 January 2022, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Bruce King

Bruce King, an American, has taught in universities world-wide, including Ibadan, Bristol, the Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 7, and Angers, and now lives in Paris where he is a free lance writer and editor. He has written or edited over 25 books including Dryden’s Major Plays, Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life, Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama. His West Indian Literature, Modern Indian Poetry in English, V. S. Naipaul, and Three Indian Poets are in their second editions. He is Series Editor for the Modern Dramatists, English Dramatists, and Literature/Culture/Identity.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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